Local officials say France's Operation Barkhane killed six civilians who had gone to hunt birds and rabbits in remote Gao region, but French forces claim they targeted militants.

The Barkhane operation comprises more than 5,000 troops fighting militants in Mali and neighbouring countries.
The Barkhane operation comprises more than 5,000 troops fighting militants in Mali and neighbouring countries. (AFP)

Local officials in northern Mali have accused France's army of killing six civilians in an air strike, but French forces claimed they targeted militants.

The incident, which occurred on Thursday in the remote Gao region, is the second time this year that France's Operation Barkhane has been accused of killing civilians. 

Mayor Mohamed Assaleh Ahmad and Souleymane Ag Almahmoud, a former member of parliament from the area, said the strike killed six civilians.

The Barkhane operation comprises more than 5,000 troops fighting militants in Mali and neighbouring countries.

Barkhane said the strike had "neutralised" a group of militants 60 km north of In Deliman.

"This strike was ordered after a phase of surveillance and identification permitting the characterisation of the presence of an armed terrorist group," it said in a statement.

Witnesses say strikes killed local hunters

Mohamed Assaleh Ahmad, mayor of the nearby village of Talataye, told AFP news agency that around 1030 GMT, witnesses around reported explosions and claim to have seen planes in the air. 

A municipal councillor also said he saw a drone fire west of Talataye.

The mayor said the victims were six male civilians from Talataye between the ages of 15 and 20 and were out hunting birds and had a single rifle between them.

"This is a group of young people, including minors, who decided to spend the day outside the village of Talataye on board three motorcycles and armed with a hunting rifle to shoot rabbits and partridge," he told AFP.

France's Barkhane force issued a statement on what appeared to be the same incident, saying intelligence and identity checks indicated the presence of an armed group.

It said it "carried out a strike neutralising" the group, while also indicating three motorcycles were destroyed. It did not say how many people were killed.

It was not possible to immediately verify either account in the remote and dangerous location.

READ MORE: Explosive device in Mali kills three French soldiers

Probe on strikes on wedding

The United Nations is currently investigating a January 3 air strike near the village of Bounti that local residents said hit a wedding party attended by civilians. 

The French military denies that account, saying the strike killed about 30 militant fighters.

Barkhane troops are deployed across West Africa's semi-arid Sahel region, where militants linked to Al Qaeda and Daesh terrorist groups are waging a widening insurrection against national armies.

France is searching for an exit strategy eight years after it first sent soldiers to intervene in Mali against militants, but President Emmanuel Macron last month ruled out an immediate reduction of troops in the region.

READ MORE: Will UN probe into Mali crimes examine France’s role in the conflict?

Source: TRTWorld and agencies